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Visualized: A Global Risk Assessment of 2021 And Beyond

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How to Use: The below maps will animate automatically. To pause, move your cursor on the image. Arrows on left/right navigate.

Visualized: A Global Risk Assessment of 2021 And Beyond

Risk is all around us. After the events of 2020, it’s not surprising that the level and variety of risks we face have become more pronounced than ever.

Every year, the World Economic Forum analyzes the top risks in the world in its Global Risks Report. Risks were identified based on 800+ responses of surveyed leaders across various levels of expertise, organizations, and regional distribution.

Which risks are top of mind in 2021?

The World’s Top Risks by Likelihood and Impact

According to WEF’s risk assessment methodology, all the global risks in 2021 fall into the following broad categories:

  • 🔵 Economic
  • 🟢 Environmental
  • 🟠 Geopolitical
  • 🔴 Societal
  • 🟣 Technological

It goes without saying that infectious diseases have now become one of the top societal risks on both metrics of likelihood and impact.

That said, environmental risks continue to dominate the leaderboard, accounting for five of the top 10 risks by impact, especially when it comes to climate action failure.

Several countries are off-track in meeting emissions goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, while the pandemic has also delayed progress in the shift towards a carbon-neutral economy. Meanwhile, biodiversity loss is occurring at unprecedented rates.

RankTop Risks by LikelihoodTop Risks by Impact
#1🟢Extreme weather🔴Infectious diseases
#2🟢Climate action failure🟢Climate action failure
#3🟢Human environmental damage🟠Weapons of mass destruction
#4🔴Infectious diseases🟢Biodiversity loss
#5🟢Biodiversity loss🟢Natural resource crises
#6🟣Digital power concentration🟢Human environmental damage
#7🟣Digital inequality🔴Livelihood crises
#8🟠Interstate relations fracture🟢Extreme weather
#9🟣Cybersecurity failure🔵Debt crises
#10🔴Livelihood crises🟣IT Infrastructure breakdown

As for other risks, the prospect of weapons of mass destruction ranks in third place for potential impact. In the global arms race, a single misstep would trigger severe consequences on civil and political stability.

New Risks in 2021

While many of the risks included in the Global Risks Report 2021 are familiar to those who have read the editions of years past, there are a flurry of new entries to the list this year.

Here are some of the most interesting ones in the risk assessment, sorted by category:

Societal Risks

COVID-19 has resulted in a myriad of knock-on societal risks, from youth disillusionment and mental health deterioration to livelihood crises. The first two risks in particular go hand-in-hand, as “pandemials” (youth aged 15-24) are staring down a turbulent future. This generation is more likely to report high distress from disrupted educational and economic prospects.

At the same time, as countries prepare for widespread immunization against COVID-19, another related societal risk is the backlash against science. The WEF identifies vaccines and immunization as subjects susceptible to disinformation and denial of scientific evidence.

Economic Risks

As monetary stimulus was kicked into high gear to prop up markets and support many closed businesses and quarantined families, the economic outlook seems more fragile than ever. Debt-to-GDP ratios continue to rise across advanced economies—if GDP growth stagnates for too long, a potential debt crisis could see many businesses and major nations default on their debt.

With greater stress accumulating on a range of major industries such as travel and hospitality, the economy risks a build-up of “zombie” firms that drag down overall productivity. Despite this, market valuations and asset prices continue to rise, with equity markets rewarding investors betting on a swift recovery so far.

Technological Risks

Last but not least, COVID-19 has raised the alert on various technological risks. Despite the accelerated shift towards remote work and digitalization of entire industries, the reality is that digital inequality leaves those with lower digital literacy behind—worsening existing inequalities.

Big Tech is also bloating even further, growing its digital power concentration. The market share some companies hold in their respective sectors, such as Amazon in online retail, threatens to erode the agency of other players.

Assessing the Top 10 Risks On the Horizon

Back in mid-2020, the WEF attempted to quantify the biggest risks over an 18-month period, with a prolonged economic recession emerging on top.

In this report’s risk assessment, global risks are further classified by how soon their resulting threats are expected to occur. Weapons of mass destruction remain the top risk, though on a much longer scale of up to 10 years in the future.

RankRisk%Time Horizon
#1🟠Weapons of mass destruction62.7Long-term (5-10 years)
#2🔴Infectious diseases58Short-term risks (0-2 years)
#3🔴Livelihood crises55.1Short-term risks (0-2 years)
#4🔵Asset bubble burst53.3Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#5🟣 IT infrastructure breakdown53.3Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#6🔵Price instability52.9Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#7🟢Extreme weather events52.7Short-term risks (0-2 years)
#8🔵Commodity shocks52.7Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#9🔵Debt crises52.3Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#10🟠State collapse51.8Long-term (5-10 years)

Through this perspective, COVID-19 (and its variants) remains high in the next two years as the world scrambles to return to normal.

It’s also clear that more economic risks are taking center stage, from an asset bubble burst to price instability that could have a profound effect over the next five years.

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Agriculture

Animated Map: U.S. Droughts Over the Last 20 Years

The Western U.S. is no stranger to droughts. But this year’s is one of the worst yet. Here’s a historical look at U.S. droughts since 1999.

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us drought 2021

Animated Map: U.S. Droughts Over the Last 20 Years

The Western U.S. is experiencing one of the worst recorded droughts in the last 20 years.

Temperatures from California to the Dakotas are currently hovering around 9-12°F above average—but how bad is the situation compared to past years?

This animated map by reddit user /NothingAbnormalHere provides a historical look at droughts in the U.S. since 1999, using data and graphics from the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM).

What is the U.S. Drought Monitor?

Over the last two decades, the USDM has been tracking, measuring, and comparing droughts across America.

While droughts can be difficult to classify and standardize, there are various factors that can be used to gauge when a region is experiencing drought. These include measurements of snowpack levels, soil moisture, and recent precipitation.

To track these conditions (and make sense of them), the USDM synthesizes data from a plethora of meteorological sources, including the Palmer Drought Severity Index and the Standardized Precipitation Index.

From there, conditions are broken down into categories, ranging from D0 (abnormally dry) to D4 (Exceptional Drought). A map is released each week that shows which states are experiencing drought, and to what degree.

Where Are The Most Drought-Prone Areas?

According to a map created by climatologist Becky Bolinger (which is published on Drought.gov), Arizona and Nevada are the most historically drought-prone states—the two have experienced drought more than 50% of the time tracked by the USDM.

Most Drought-Prone States

California is high on the list as well, with the state experiencing drought at least 40% of the time.

As the historical data shows, the West is no stranger to droughts. However, this year’s drought has become particularly worrisome because of its intensity and breadth.

Right now, more than a quarter of the West is experiencing a D4 level drought—a new record. To help put things into perspective, here’s a look at how much overall land area in the West has been in drought, since 2000:

West Percent Area in U.S. Drought

When a region is experiencing a D4 drought, possible impacts include:

  • Water Scarcity
    Lower reservoirs, combined with decreased snowpack lead to water shortages.
  • Crop losses
    Water shortages mean less water for fields, which can lead to acres of fallow (unused) farmland.
  • Wildfires
    Dry conditions and lack of moisture increase the risk of wildfires.

Is This the New Norm?

This record-breaking drought is wreaking havoc across the West. In California, reservoirs have about half as much water as they usually do, and crop failures are happening across Colorado.

The worst part? Some experts believe that this could be the new normal if human-driven climate change continues to increase average temperatures across the globe.

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Green

Visualized: The Power of a Sustainable Investment Dollar

Do sustainable investments make a difference? From carbon emissions to board diversity, we break down their impact across three industries.

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Sustainable Investment

Visualizing the Power of a Sustainable Investment Dollar

Sustainable investments are booming.

Between January and November 2020 alone, investments in sustainable ETF and mutual funds grew 96%. The UN Principles of Responsible Investment now has over 3,000 signatories representing over $100 trillion in assets. The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission established a Climate Risk Unit to analyze climate risk across derivative markets, and as of March 2021, new sustainability disclosures have come into effect in Europe.

But how do we know if sustainable investments have made a difference?

To answer this question, the above infographic from MSCI examines the effect of a sustainable investment dollar by looking at real-world examples.

A Sustainable vs. Unsustainable Dollar

To start, investing legend Benjamin Graham has compared the stock market to a “voting machine.” Just as consumers vote with their purchasing decisions, investors vote with their investment dollars. Especially in the short term, as more dollars flow to sustainable companies, this builds their exposure and access to capital.

In the long term, meanwhile, the market can be compared to a weighing machine. The market recognizes companies with profitable business models that improve their intrinsic value over time. Ultimately, this allows sustainable companies to expand and continue operating.

Given the rising momentum in both green assets and climate targets, here is how investment dollars have influenced and driven change across three industries.

1. Clean Energy vs. Fossil Fuel

Over the last several years, the energy sector has been associated with many of the problems causing climate change. For this reason, many investors are seeking out greener energy alternatives. But how does moving investment dollars from an ESG laggard to an ESG leader support the environment and society?

First, here is a brief explainer of ESG laggards and leaders:

  • ESG laggards: companies with the weakest environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance in their sector.
  • ESG leaders: companies with the strongest environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance in their sector.
Industry laggard: U.S. oil & gas companyIndustry leader: U.S. utilities company
Scale of carbon-intensive business lines equal to 73% of its operation47% lower CO2 emissions than the industry average
This is the equivalent of adding 26 million cars on the road annuallyThis is the equivalent of removing 9.9 million cars off the road annually
1 of 20 oil and gas companies are responsible for contributing to one third of GHG emissions since 1965Uses 3X as many renewable sources than industry average
3X fewer jobs are created vs. energy efficient sector, resulting in lower productivityThis is roughly the same as saving over 9 million pounds of coal burned
MSCI ESG Rating: CCCMSCI ESG Rating: AAA

Source: MSCI ESG Research

Based on the above example, investors have the ability to finance powerful green initiatives that reduce emissions by almost half, relative to their peers.

2. Safe vs. Unsafe Working Conditions

Weak safety protocols are a key sustainability issue for the industrial sector. Here’s how two companies compare:

Industry laggard: South African mining companyIndustry leader: U.S. mining company
11 fatalities in 2019Zero fatalities in 2019
Faced lawsuits from miners surrounding lung diseases contracted from dust exposure in gold mines
Settlement cost: $350 million
Board-level oversight monitors health and safety performance
Lags behind peers in high incident ratesLeads peers in low incident rates
Lags behind peers in setting incident reduction targetsLeads industry in lost time incident rate & total recordable injury rate
MSCI ESG Rating: CCCMSCI ESG Rating: A

Source: MSCI ESG Research

Despite the risks involved in the sector, investors can choose to support companies that take greater precautions to protect their workers.

3. Building Trust vs. Losing Trust

Over the last several years, the financial sector has faced increased scrutiny over fraudulent activities. Moving investment dollars from an ESG laggard to ESG leader may make a difference:

Industry laggard: U.S. bankIndustry leader: Dutch bank
$3 billion settlement in creating fictitious accounts to meet aggressive sales targetsSustainable finance portfolio valued at over $20 billion
Drop in top-tier bank ratings13% annual increase in climate finance
Board effectiveness questionedIncludes over 60 green loans, mobilizing environmentally friendly projects
Resignation of board membersOver 55% of board is female
MSCI ESG Rating: CCCMSCI ESG Rating: A

Source: MSCI ESG Research

From board diversity to green loans, a sustainable investment dollar supports companies that are actively advancing society and the environment.

Sustainable Investment: The Time to Act

Recently, investor dollars and shareholder activism have been closely linked.

Between 2018 and 2020, large institutional investors filed 217 shareholder proposals on climate change alone, putting increased pressure on companies. Meanwhile, 270 proposals were filed on corporate political activity and 228 on fair labor and equal employment opportunity over the same timeframe. Across all ESG proposals, $2 trillion in assets were pushing for more equitable corporate action.

Through the power of a dollar, investors can send a clear signal to companies: the time for sustainable investing is now.

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